On Thursday 21 April, Members of the European Parliament issued a common call for the enhanced protection of freedom of conscience in Europe and beyond. In the “Declaration on the Importance of Strengthening the Fundamental Right to Freedom of Conscience” issued by Members from a number of political groups, the politicians note “with great concern the growing limitations to the fundamental right to freedom of conscience.” They state that “currently many people across the world are facing an insurmountable conflict: either violate their conscience, or face material punishment according to the law of the land.”
The unequivocal language of the Declaration demonstrates a new awareness of what has been regarded as a marginal problem for too long: the rapid rise of limitations on freedom of conscience worldwide. Increasingly, people are not free to live according to their basic moral principles without risking personal or professional ruin, or even violent persecution.
People are not free to live according to their basic moral principles without risking personal or professional ruin
Freedom of Conscience: guaranteed by law, deteriorating in practice
Freedom of conscience has been central to the human rights movement since its inception. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the constitution of the modern human rights movement, states in its very first article that ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience.’ It is no accident that the recognition of this deep moral sense for right and wrong called conscience – and the prohibition on forcing a person to violate it – has been at the cornerstone of the rebirth of Europe after the atrocities witnessed during the Second World War.
Subsequently, freedom of conscience received attention, recognition and protection in prominent human rights conventions, at both international and national level, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. All these documents have conveyed the important message that without the basic right to freedom of conscience, no other human right can be fully enjoyed.
However in practice, the protection of freedom of conscience has continued to deteriorate over the past few decades with a visible acceleration in recent years. For instance, the emergence of laws in parts of Asia that do not permit a free choice of religion and force people into abnegating their faith; ‘blasphemy’ laws in Muslim countries such as Pakistan that permit the trial and condemnation of people on vague and arbitrary grounds; national laws in the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Finland and Sweden that do not fully guarantee the right to conscientious objection against life-ending procedures for doctors and nurses. Ethos-based organizations are driven out of business due to laws that have overruled institutional freedom. The concept of institutional freedom is under discussion in a number of EU countries, among them the seat of the EU – Belgium.
In the Declaration’s words, “several EU member states do not fully guarantee freedom of conscience including the right to conscientious objection. In such countries, staying true to deeply held moral beliefs may lead to dismissal from employment, severe financial penalties, bankruptcy, loss of reputation due to negative media coverage, permanent unemployment and social discrimination. In a number of non-EU states, choosing or changing one’s religion can entail serious and often government-condoned discrimination and the denial of basic rights.”
A Positive Step towards Strengthening Freedom of Conscience
The Declaration puts forward a number of important mechanisms to strengthen freedom of conscience. It reiterates the call for the creation of a Special Representative for Freedom of Religion and Belief in the World, which appeared in February of this year in the European Parliament’s Resolution on the systematic mass murder of religious minorities by ISIS. This position has been recently created. Jan Figel is the first Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU. He will assist the currently limited ability of the EU to advance tailored responses to the increasing restrictions on freedom of conscience around the world. And there is much work to be done.
The Declaration recalls the human rights obligations to which the EU is already bound and urges the EU, ‘in both its internal and external action, along with its member states to ensure robust protection of freedom of conscience,’ by amending laws that do not provide for conscientious objection, repealing anti-conversion laws, and putting in place adequate guarantees to safeguard freedom of conscience.
As limitations on freedom of conscience continue to grow both within and outside the EU, the resolve of Members of the European Parliament seeking to tackle the issue is an important expression of political will. It represents a much-needed step to resituate freedom of conscience to where it belongs: at the core of the human rights debate.